James Mattis will replace David Petraeus as the commander of Centcom.

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July 8 2010 2:05 PM

The New Commander

James Mattis will replace David Petraeus as the commander of Centcom.

Gen. James Mattis. Click to view expanded image.
Gen. James Mattis

Gen. James Mattis has been joking recently that after 41 years in the Marines, he was going to return to his home of Walla Walla, Wash., to become an onion farmer. He'll have to wait. The four-star general is going to Tampa, Fla., to take over for Army Gen. David Petraeus as commander of the U.S. Central Command, overseeing combat in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The news was announced by Defense Secretary Robert Gates at a press conference today. Mattis now faces a Senate confirmation.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk. Follow him on Twitter.

Mattis, who I profiled for my series on risk-takers, is currently the commander of the Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., where he helps the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines fight in coordination. He commanded Marines as a brigadier general in Afghanistan in 2001. In 2003, he was the Marine ground commander in Iraq, leading the 20,000 troops of the 1st Marine Division for 500 miles over 17 days, the longest sustained march in Marine Corps history. He then returned to fight in Al-Anbar province in 2003 during the toughest period of combat. He was considered the front-runner to be named commandant of the Marine Corps but was passed over for that post several weeks ago.

It was a disappointment for Mattis. With few spots for someone of his rank, his only real option was to retire. Still, it was inconceivable to those around the energetic 59-year-old that after a lifetime in the service he would be leaving. Then Gen. Stanley McChrystal's career abruptly ended, and Mattis' fortunes were reversed.

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When President Obama named Petraeus to replace McChrystal in Afghanistan, he signaled that he was not retreating from the counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy, with its emphasis on quick adaptation and winning over the population through a reduction in force. Petraeus was one of the two generals behind Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency, that outlined the doctrine. Mattis was the other. "The two generals established an impressive rapport based on their shared understanding of the conduct of counterinsurgency and of the urgent need to reform their services to make them more capable of conducting this most difficult kind of war," wrote John Nagl, a member of the manual's writing team and author of Learning To Eat Soup With a Knife, a key text in the counterinsurgency canon.

Mattis is known for his ferocity and his risk-taking—which included regularly riding out into combat with his jump platoon, despite his high rank. (That's something he'll probably have to give up now.) He is also known for his intellect. He is well-read in history and military strategy but has also studied innovation and adaptation techniques.

Mattis is also known for his mouth. He is a jokester in person and also blunt. In the spring of 2003, in the first of his meetings with recently defeated Iraqi military leaders he famously said: "I come in peace. I didn't bring artillery. But I'm pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you fuck with me, I'll kill you all." In a speech in 2005, when describing the atrocities committed by some members of the Taliban, he said, "It was fun to shoot some people."

You might think elevating this kind of general a risk for the president. After all, didn't McChrystal's mouth get him fired? But these quotes are of a different order than the ones from McChrystal in Rolling Stone, and among the troops, the Mattis quotes they repeat emphasize more than just force. "No better friend, no worse enemy," he wrote his troops before they embarked on the 2003 invasion of Iraq. When he returned to Al-Anbar, he added to that set of instructions, "First do no harm."

In this new post, Mattis will have to be a diplomat, working with NATO allies and countries in the region, most notably Pakistan. President Obama was concerned about this element of the job when evaluating Mattis and brought it up at their meeting. He comes to the job with experience. While fighting the insurgency in Iraq, Mattis held countless meetings with local leaders, in keeping with counterinsurgency doctrine's emphasis on diplomacy over force. In his latest post, he also served for two years as NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Transformation with an office in Brussels.

While working on my profile of Mattis for my series on risk-taking, I listened in on a speech he gave to newly minted one-star officers in which he extolled the value and virtues of building "harmony and trust" within a coalition. His longest story was not about valor, bravery, and daring but about negotiating with Pakistani officials in preparation for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

Another point Mattis emphasized in his talk was that great officers are defined by their ability to adapt to surprises. Last week, the career of a four-star general unexpectedly came to an end. This week, the career of another four-star general, which was supposed to be coming to an end, will unexpectedly continue. Mattis has been given his surprise. Now we will see whether he and Petraeus are able to turn it into greatness.